In Defense of Individualism (or Why Community is Bad)

In my Psychology of Ideology class here in Germany we’ve been looking at the Protestant Reformation. Last week we visited Wittenberg. We had a marvelous time visiting Marin Luther’s house and walking through the town to Schlosskirche (Castle Church) where Luther nailed the 95 Theses.

As most will know, a pivotal moment in the Reformation and in Luther’s life was his trial at the Diet of Worms. Luther had been excommunicated, just weeks after he burned the papal bull warning him that he was walking a thin line. At the Diet of Worms the secular authorities were to hear Luther’s case to decide if they would enforce the bull, to arrest Luther and hand him over to Rome. Once in Rome Luther would have certainly been burned at the stake.

To save his skin all Luther had to do was recant. Famously, he refused. With these words:

"Unless I shall be convinced by the testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear reason...I neither can nor will recant, since it is neither safe nor honorable to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

The last bit may be apocryphal, but “Here I stand. I can do no other.” makes for a great line. One of the most famous in world history.

As I pondered Luther I began to circle around some ideas and concerns I’ve been having about contemporary theological thinking. Luther helps me raise some issues I’ve been worried about.

Today it is very fashionable in theological circles to speak of community. “Community” is the answer to practically every theological question we can ask. Further, the centrality of community is supported by ontological claims grounded in notions of the Trinity. Trinity and community are where it’s at.

But as a psychologist I have a lot of trouble with community. Let me be specific. Groups are moral cesspools. Pick up any social psychology textbook and you find the evidence:

In-group favoritism
Out-group denigration
Group conformity
Peer pressure
Social loafing
The Bystander Effect
Free Riders
Obedience to Authority
The Lucifer Effect

On and on it goes.

Now I know that the dark side of social psychology isn’t what is being invoked when “community” is mentioned in theological conversation. Just the opposite is being discussed. But at just this point my worries start. I worry about if the highfalutin language of Trinity and community can cash out at the level of social psychology. I don’t trust human groups. They do a lot of evil things. Especially religiously-motivated groups.

Don’t get me wrong. I think friendship is one of the greatest goods of human existence. But friendship, which I have no problems with, is very different from community.

Now someone might (and should) respond that the evils I’m speaking of are due to homophilia, the love of the similar. Homophilia creates these homogeneous groups that define themselves over against other groups. In contrast, the community of God should be based on heterophilia, the love of difference. This kind of community is difficult to achieve, we have to sacrifice a great deal to live with difference.

But it is precisely at this point where the whole “community project” starts to break down. For loving “the different” has to stop at some point. Eventually the faith-group will draw a line in the sand. We’ll be “in communion” up until this point. It might be a doctrinal issue or a behavioral code. Regardless, even the purest form of Christian Community cited by modern day theologians will be defined by a line discriminating those who are In and those who are Out.

So the issue quickly becomes: Who gets to draw that line? This is where Luther’s case becomes important. Luther was excommunicated for being a dangerous heretic. But isn’t heresy simply going against the consensus? Luther was repeatedly asked before, during, and after the Diet of Worms: How can you trust your individual conscience in the face of centuries of church teaching? Why are you so certain YOU are right and THE CHURCH is wrong? Isn’t Luther’s stance simply one of hubris?

In today’s church individualism is a bad word. It’s the stain of modernity and post-modernity. The taint of the Enlightenment. Rugged individualism is bad, community is good. Yet the force of the individual’s conscience in the face of the community began at the Diet of Worms, an event lauded by the theologians and church historians who are touting the evils of “individualism.” Isn’t that a bit ironic?

Maybe individualism isn’t so bad. And maybe community isn’t as good as we think it is.

I’m being a bit provocative with all this, but I think there is an important issue here that is currently not getting enough airtime in all the talk about community. The issue is this: How can prophets emerge unless we allow for individualism? And if prophets are consistently the moral lights among us then is not individualism—the light of an individual’s conscience before God—the engine of spiritual reform? If so, it is individualism that is driving the Kingdom forward and community, as it so often does, which is holding it back.

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14 thoughts on “In Defense of Individualism (or Why Community is Bad)”

  1. I'm beginning to suspect that marriage is as bad as community. But then we have a logical sequence to follow.

    God commands marriage (work with me here).
    Marriage is bad
    God commands some aspect of marriage that is not bad.
    Community is just as bad as marriage, IFF (works both ways.)
    God commands community (hey, I think he does)
    Community is bad, like marriage is bad
    There's something about community that is good.
    Just like there's something about marriage that is good.

    Life without marriage
    Life without community
    Are they ok, are we shaking our fists at God?
    I don't need marriage, I don't need others, and I certainly don't need to be restrained by others that need me, and I certainly don't need to give leadership to fight all the bad parts of marriage and or community.

    Just thinking. Each point, trust me on this, can be justified by expanding each one. But I don't exactly know what this all means except:

    God command marriage for everyone except those for whom he gives an extraordinary charismatic gift (I know, redundancy).

    God commands us to be in church and be in families, and to love one another, and to resist all manner of evil and do all manner of good. Except maybe for those whom He gives an extraordinary spiritual gift.

  2. About individualism and prophets. Prophets only can work in a context of anti-individualist community. They strike at the communal life that has gone astray. Individualists are responsive to appeals to taste or personal, overly personal, private convictions.

    We have torah, prophets, wisdom. Torah says, Here's the Law, we all have to follow it, lockstep if you will. Prophets say, Yes that's right, except the present leaders have it all wrong--but the communal obligations stand. And Wisdom people say, yes, yes, and vice versa, don't get your knickers twisted about it, don't be overly righteous, why go to an early grave?--just, what do we do Monday morning?

  3. Some futher clarifications and comments....

    I'm setting up a dialectic here, with community and individual in conversation. My aim in this post is that, as I hear it in my church and university, the dialectic isn't deployed, only the theme of community. The post isn't to shun communal notions. It is rather to note that "community" isn't a panacea. My moral example is that there are times when the sole individual of conscience will have to stand over against the moral and hermanutical community and in those moments appeals to "community" are actually wrong or even evil.

    On a different note, readers will see my unease with groups. Very rarely do humans act morally in groups. Morality tends to emerge when an individual conscience is pricked, when a peson feels personally accountable to act. Further, groups, as I noted in the post, set up conflict.

    To remedy this I've been kicking around alternative words, other than community. Perhaps solidarity or fraternity are good starts.

  4. Richard,

    On another subject. I heard your paper read at the Christian Scholars Conference. I got to meet fellow bloggers Krister White and James Wiser during my one day there. Amidst a busy day I missed George Cooper.

  5. I have been giving some thought to this subject lately, but in relationship to the issue of of whether religion makes the world a better place. I have tentatively come to the conclusion that "religion is good" because of my experience in Christian community. There just doesn't seem to be a secular equivalent to church, where people are held accountable and encouraged to behave well. Your post is making me consider the possibility that I've been swept away in the "community is cool" frenzy. It is posts like these that keep me on my toes, and keep me coming back.

  6. Hi Pecs,
    It is a difficult thing. The Christian community is both the best and the worst thing. On the dark side we see the silliness, the triviality, the shallowness, or even the immorality (particularly when you look at the behavior of the church historically) of the community.

    But on the bright side we find pockets of honest and true friendship of right and poor, black and white, man and women, police officer and ex-con sitting around the Lord's Table as equals, as brothers and sisters. This is the Christian community at its best.

    But again, I like the idea of solidarity better than the "group" overtones of "community." As I recently heard from a very smart person: "Show me a church that calls itself a family and I'll show you a church that excludes."

  7. Let me begin by saying we have missed you in Sojourners lately. Hope you are well in Germany.
    As far as your post goes, I would have to say agree, at least mostly. I am actually one of those "theologians" who talks a lot about community. But, I think there are two different (or probably more than that) conversations going about individualism and community. I agree with your assessment of the dangers of elevating community, particularly in regards to the silencing of prophets.
    However, I don't think most people are talking about community over individualism in terms of moral behavior. In the conversation about community, I am primarily concerned about how you make truth claims (though, I am glad you are writing about community in relation to morality). This is where the conversation about modernity/Enlightenment and individualism is pertinent. The problem was that truth was primarily up to the individual. The shift comes with recognizing that any truth claim is based, de facto, in community because we use language, symbols, and experiences that are shared by a community (or maybe I should just say "other people around us"). So, community is vital. I will say I am not sure if it is community over individual, but it is a recognition that the community is inevitably present in any truth claim.
    For clarification sake, I don't buy the postliberal understanding of community and truth. When I say community, I mean something much more porous and dynamic. I am basically trying to argue Kathryn Tanner's point in Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology.

  8. Richard,

    As I look to develop my thoughts further the need to integrate law and love has seemed like the obvious next step. Conscience/community seems to put a different angle on that theme. Do you see the two "sides" as more in tension or as more complementary, at least when ideally conceived?

    My initial leaning is toward complementarity, but you have me thinking that might not be correct--even ideally. Did I get the gist of your post in taking that from it?

  9. Richard,

    I'm a small groups minister, and I couldn't agree more with the dilemma you've described. The spiritual discipline needed to be a healthy small group member, much less a small groups leader, is a high bar for many of the Christians who populate our small groups.

    Strange as it may sound, one of my toughest jobs is trying to find as many places as I can for people to feel warmth and friendship, while limiting the influence a group can develop, whether on its own members or on others.

    Personally, I believe our inability to form communities with healthy dynamics is a damaging witness against us as Christians. Christians must ask of their communities the same questions which a non faith-based group must ask of theirs, especially where moral behavior is concerned. What I grieve is that while our verbal answers seem to be "right," our group actions too often look and sound the same as anyone else's. Too often there is little difference between a Christian small group and a gossip mill or a political interest group.

    Can we find enough God-given creativity, discipline, and humility in our Christian communities to demonstrate the kind of transformation God desires, rather than the kind of regression that can occur within all types of groups, including Christian groups?

  10. Hi All,
    Thanks for all the comments and feedback. I'm returning to the States tomorrow and rushing around to get packed. I'm just posting a quick note here from an internet cafe to say I've seen your thoughts and will respond in a few days when I get back home.

    Oh, we spent a few days in Prague this weekend. Alert: Be prepared for some Kafka posts!

  11. I totally agree with you. I've been trying to convince a guy that "community" is not the end-all it is made out to be by the institution.

  12. We are communal beings. We rely on others for every aspect of our lives; we define ourselves against communal standards.

    The trouble is when we go from a "we are" statement like that to a "therefore we should" statement about emphasising the values of community that often just means validating the community that exists and its every way of doing things.

    We can't detach ourselves, that's impossible. But we can position ourselves strategically. Both in relation to the world community and church communities.

  13. Fantastic post and I'm thoroughly intrigued by your list of other articles you've written. I've got a lot of reading to do!

    My interests of late (religious psychology) mirror yours, it seems... only I am very much an amateur!

    Thank you for your "individual" contribution.

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